I grew up as a happy child sheltered comfortably in a middle class home with very caring and supportive parents. On Sundays my sister and I dressed up in our Sunday best and we were whisked off to the Dutch Reformed church and our Sunday school lessons. Church services were formalistic and at times felt a bit dreary. For reasons unknown to me I became cynical and over time drifted away from church. This started around the time I finished high school, carried on though my university years and was the case for much of my professional career.
During this time I did not recognise the many blessings God continued to shower on me. An exception was one brief but profound interaction with God in the midst of a key second year law exam. Halfway through the exam I realised that I was in deep trouble and despite not having prayed for years sent an urgent prayer for divine intervention. It came and I was suddenly drifting on clouds of incredible clarity and comprehension and somehow was guided to successfully complete the paper and pass. It must have been a testimony of how far off I was in my walk towards God as I quickly forgot how God had lifted me out of that hole.
The stark realities of South Africa became more obvious to me during my university years. Looking back, it was surreal how the old government propaganda machine coloured in and justified the apartheid policies. Thankfully South Africa has since experienced a miraculous transformation and political and social reformation. With the guiding hand of God and with efforts of many special people the canvas bearing the new society was and is still being shaped. I believe that by God’s grace the finished painting will eventually be full of harmony and there may no longer be a divided society.
I am no longer the cynic I once was and my road to redemption was one of gradual change, coupled with a dramatic intervention from God to get my attention. A series of events eventually led to my first public confession of my belief in Christ in 2005. Only recently, have I understood the importance of having a living relationship with God and have I now embarked with a journey along this path.
God works in remarkable ways. I now live in Geneva, Switzerland, a city known for its reformation in the distant past. Without realising it, God was guiding me on my own reformation in the journey to and perhaps later beyond Geneva. The road which I have been travelling has been full of interesting twists and turns.
I pick up the story during the early 1990’s when I was still a young investment banker in my late twenties and at the peak of my arrogance. At this time I was working in the corporate finance team of Absa Group Limited (“Absa”), a South African banking group now owned by Barclays Plc. At this time my focus was on deals, money and image. Although I was outwardly self assured, confident, even bordering on being arrogant, I inwardly struggled with demons of self doubt in my abilities and achievements and I was forever concerned about people’s perceptions. These feelings were compounded by the knowledge that our corporate finance team was not regarded as one of the top tier businesses in the market. I guess these struggles are inevitable if you do not walk securely with God, but this I did not understand at the time. My interactions with the church were limited to weddings and Christmas morning church services with my parents. God did not feature in the picture.
On a personal level my family were on the brink of giving up hope that I will find a suitable wife. Their scepticism was well founded as I have not had a serious relationship for some time and along the way have made some bad mistakes. To make things worse, I was suffering from a pretty deep scar of a love lost in a situation where nothing should ever have been in the first place. Finding God taught me to forgive and to let go of that chapter of my life. This was deeply rewarding.
Recently I have thought of an encounter with someone who was briefly part of my life more than twenty years ago. Today I finally understand what she was trying to say so many years ago. A holiday romance after my last school year led to irregular contact between us for number of years, mostly when I was still at university at Stellenbosch in the Western Cape of South Africa. Later on, when I tried to re-establish contact, she had found and embraced God. It gave her great joy and comfort. She attended regular church services and was deeply involved in church activities. After dinner one evening, she asked …“Ben, why are you trying to re-establish contact? My answer was that I was willing to see if we could see each other more often and see where things eventually end up. After explaining her relationship with God she replied … “Ben, I have accepted God in my life, and I am deeply involved in my relationship with Him…” I was on a rocky path and my stumbled reply showed ignorance and my worldly view. She simply said …“Please do not ask me to choose between God and you as I cannot do that”. We did not have much contact after that evening. If by some chance she ever reads this or if I should I get the opportunity to say it in person, it has taken me many years but now I understand what you meant that night.
Carine was instrumental in guiding and leading me along the path to God. God, off course, designed the circumstances leading up to our unexpected meeting in the first place and scripted our journey to eventually marry. This story is by far my favourite one to tell and shows how true love can unexpectedly embrace us (for me this was certainly the case, but it did take some time to convince Carine). Our chance encounter took place on a Friday afternoon during late summer in the Drakensburg mountain range in the lush green KwaZulu Natal region of South Africa. We were attending a first session of a development programme designed by Absa to broaden our world view, leadership development and to provide us with a better appreciation of cultural diversity. Although this was a fantastic opportunity and a wonderfully rich program, the arrogant investment banker I was initially thought it is an unwanted distraction and will be a waste of time. I advised the head of our investment banking business of my thoughts and that I think it is best if I do not attend. Thank God for wiser men like Glenn Povey (bless you and the kids) simply put his foot down and told me it is not a debate – I have to go.
Carine is tall and attractive. I noticed her instantly and when we spoke for the first time during dinner that night, something strange triggered deep inside me. One look into her green blue eyes was enough to rattle carefully constructed defensive walls, a remnant of the love lost and designed to keep uncontrolled feelings at bay. For someone who likes to control the situation and meticulously plan things, these unexpected and almost alien feelings shook up my world. I fell asleep bewildered that night, confused and feeling somewhat love struck. What was happening to me? I was not able to deny these feelings and rather irrationally decided to immediately brush ego aside and tell her how I feel. This may sound more than a little mad, but it is exactly what I did. On the last day of our three day get together I had my chance. Carine was enjoying a quite moment outside and I interrupted her silence and blurted out how I felt. Possibly the words did not came out as I had intended, but the poor girl could not believe what she was hearing and began to shake from shock. At that moment I realised that what may seem to like a superb idea will not always have the story book outcome, well at least not immediately. Unfortunately her reaction was far from what I had in mind. Before I could make an awkward situation worse, others joined us and the moment was lost. Driving back the next day I tried to console myself by thinking that at least I had managed to brush ego aside long enough to say exactly how I feel, despite the very strange things she must be thinking about me on her journey back to Cape Town, some 1’500 kilometres away. After all, the optimist I am, perhaps not an opportunity lost.
Many a movie has depicted the excitement of long telephone conversations during the courtship phase. There is an evolutionary path where you slowly start to get to know each other and one day realise that the last conversation lasted an hour or two, with no idea where the time went. Carine and I were enjoying this experience. Persistence usually pays off and I was slowly making inroads in my quest to win her heart over. After a few months I managed to convince Carine to join me for lunch in the Western Cape (my best friend and his wife went along as part of the deal) and topped off the weekend with an early dinner at Spier, a Stellenbosch wine farm two days later. Driving back under starry skies I tried yet another desperate move with borrowed music and played two songs to Carine. The first was ‘Take a chance on me` from Abba’ (always hard to admit one is a fan, but look at the result!) and a Van Morrison song, ‘Someone exactly like you`. These were also the first two songs which opened up the dance floor at our wedding celebrations some 18 months later.
Carine eventually moved to Johannesburg and attended Rosebank Union, an English speaking multi-denomination Baptist driven church in a leafy Sandton suburb, north of Johannesburg. I was still stuck in a spiritual wasteland, but slowly became more aware of the emptiness inside me and a longing for that to be filled. Also, I could see how committed Carine had become to God and what a great example she was for others. This has been valuable lesson for me – the day to day behaviour of Christians must be a living testimony of our belief. Others will eventually take notice and that may be the seeds they need to start questioning and embarking on their own personal journeys.
After the birth of Lisa, our first daughter, things gradually changed as I felt some responsibility to be part of Lisa’s introduction to church. God, off course, had a clear roadmap which I was still unaware of. At Rosebank Union church I enjoyed the rich sermons of a wonderfully gifted pastor, Ellis Andre, exactly what I needed at that time. At first I attended infrequently, but over time gradually improved my attendance.
Yet, I could not bring myself to take communion as I was not able to openly or in my deepest being profess my faith in remembrance of the price Jesus had paid for our sins. I was petrified by the warning in 1 Corinthians 11:27-29 (New International Version) “… Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks of the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats or drinks without recognising the body of the Lord, eats and drinks judgement on himself …”. It was interesting to read in C. S Lewis’s book, ’Surprised by Joy’ some thoughts he expressed about his first experiences of communion, where he mentioned that “… I allowed myself to be prepared for confirmation … and to make my first communion in total disbelief, acting a part, eating and drinking my own condemnation …”. It is true that I did not and could not then know the real nature of the thing I was doing: but I knew very well that I was acting a lie with the greatest possible solemnity…”.
At this stage, I was seeking some insurance policy and thought that I will find Christianity by osmoses. I realise now that one cannot secure an admission ticket to Heaven. Accepting Christ as our saviour is only the first step. A living relationship with Jesus will then develop, that changes who we are and how we do things. Still, my walk to God first required a rather dramatic intervention which I will describe in the next chapter.
Ben de Bruyn – Copyright © 2013